The Curse of Communications Technologies

Technology is a pain in the rear end. For us writers especially. In my post on tools I used for the 2011 NaNoWriMo what I used was mostly late 20th and 21st century technology, which while generally fantastic aids to storytelling, do have their traps (the Technology Trap™ as I have decided to title it).

However beyond that writing in a world of technology is a real pain in the rear, too. The worlds you create, and that your characters must interact with have their own traps and pit falls, and equally rewards when things work out.

It’s a problem that writers have increasingly faced when writing about their own time, and/or future times over the past century or so. Jane Austen had it relatively easy, she only had three basic forms of communication to deal with:

  • Face to face
  • Letters
  • Grapevine

Dumas mixed it up a bit with some technology in the form of the semaphore and news media. It was all a lot simpler though, and constrained. Since then communications technology has come on in leaps and bounds. It is now feasible that people can go days without meaningful real world communication, (I mean face to face verbal and body language and such), but communicate regularly throughout a day through one of the following:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Peer to peer chat services (MSN, AOL, Facebook chat)
  • Forums
  • Email
  • Text message
  • Phone calls (especially mobile ones)

It’s a nightmare if you want to convey a sense of a modern world in your story. Sure a quick phone call, or a summary of an email is easy enough to handle, but communication is so instant, distant, constant, and intrusive that you’re probably better off ignoring most modern communication just to keep your story flowing, even though in all likelihood your character would deal with this stuff, (even mildly technical people are sucked into it these days).

I write under the philosophy that this type of communication should be kept to what is necessary for your story anyway, it is surprisingly easy to drift off into subplots that are made up of communication, but do nothing to drive your story. Even if it’s really interesting character developing stuff, your readers might not appreciate it quite the same way.

Something else to bear in mind, when you feel you need to expose your story to modern communications technology, we generally use a different form of our language in written forms of communication. So that character voice you’ve worked so hard to develop will become confused and diluted with the addition of another voice that is theirs and not quite theirs.

Another hint, (because I’m full of advice today), if you have to fit in a text, email, facebook status or an instant message, avoid acronyms, you’d be surprised how many readers won’t know something you think of as very common. It should go without saying that these should appear nowhere else in your novel unless you want a character or narrator to be truly obnoxious.

It doesn’t stop with modern communication though, how people communicate is pretty tied into the structure of societies. Completely ignore it in a futuristic piece and you risk society being something akin to neanderthals in space, with over half your book being travelling to communicate or your cast of characters being severely isolated from the rest of the universe that should exist.

In my NaNoWriMo novel this year, it was set in space hundreds of years ahead us and to get round the communication problems, I had to have a range of communication methods from infrequent near range video signals,  to mid-range text like transmission system, and a slow moving information network system that could spread across the galaxy.

Even with all that I still had to fit in near range personal communications via a smartphone like device because it makes no sense at all to be restrained to a desk to ask the engine room why they’re not breaking the laws of physics yet. Because you also need modern like communications to cut down on travelling through your world just for petty but important plot points. As much its nice to describe your world your readers and your characters will get equally bored and tired. There’s a need for balance, but wherever possible I put the extra effort in for real interactions, you learn a lot more about your characters that way, and you can include a lot more subtext in the communication.

So it’s a tough job to get all this organised in a cool and consistent way, without cluttering your story, and without reducing the believablity. Once you do though, you’ll have a lot easier to read story.

I stand by the method of avoiding communications that don’t involve face to face interaction as much as is feasible. I’d rather read real human interaction with all it’s intricate conscious and sub-conscious messages intact. Something increasingly lost in modern communication.

Having said all that, one of my current works in progress relies on Twitter posts as a way to provide narration about the wilder world during a cataclysmic event, but aside from brief cut outs to a Twitter news feed, the interactions with the world are mostly in person, with just the odd text and phone call to provide real time distance communication with a goal. So watch this space to see if I can see if I can get it to work, against my own general advice.

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